“If you want to truly learn to play beautifully, you must learn to love the wrong notes as much as you love the right ones.”
This quote changed my approach to playing the piano and changed my life as a whole as a result. This was spoken to me by my teacher, Joseph Prostakoff, many years ago.
If this statement intrigues you, puzzles you, or excites you, I hope you will come along with me on a journey of profound discovery.
Welcome to the first issue of Key2Piano
The Purpose of this Blog is to share my thoughts and insights gained over the past 35 years of helping people to learn to play the piano. I have taught children, teens, and adults. In recent years my focus has been more on the adult student. Some are beginners, who have long had a desire to play the piano and add the joy of music to their lives, and some are what I fondly call “re-beginners” – those who played the piano as children (often forced to by parents), had a bad (or at least less-than-joyous) experience, but now want to try again, but with a completely different approach. I provide that completely different approach. I help them to play whatever music appeals to them, and my approach is basically the same whether they are learning to play jazz, pop, or classical music.
If you are someone who is learning to play the piano, or who has tried to learn in the past, and is perhaps wondering why it is more arduous, less joyful, less satisfying than you hoped, or feeling that your teacher or the method being taught is too dogmatic, too repetitive, too mechanical and not creative enough, then I hope you will read on! There IS another way!
I’m not suggesting that learning to play the piano is simple. I have never, and never will, advertise “Learn to Play the Piano in a Week!” as some methods do. As I often say to my students, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.” I remember a story told to me by a former teacher, about a man who had been an accomplished pianist, and had become a fighter pilot in World War II. He flew many dangerous missions and was awarded a hero’s medal. When asked how he managed to perform these difficult missions, he quipped: “Once you have tried to learn to play the piano, everything else seems easy in comparison.”
Listening to, and even more so, playing, music can be a profound experience. Music accompanies our most joyous celebrations, and also our solemn ones. It makes us want to dance, to sing, tap our feet, clap our hands, laugh and cry, and to pour our hearts out to and with other human beings. So it does not seem to “compute” that the learning of playing an instrument would be an experience where daily drudgery, fear of mistakes (and too often, harsh criticisms from the teacher when they are made) are necessary or expected. Jazz and pop musicians have always known this, but “classically-trained” musicians have too-often assumed that drudgery and un-relenting struggle comes with the territory . I have adult students who remember their teacher hitting their hands with a ruler when a mistake was made. Others recall receiving regular insults regarding their abilities or rate of progress. Some are afraid to sing, having been told as children not to do so because they weren’t singing on key. Some adults had teachers who treated them like children, and demanded strict adherence to every minute detail of the teacher’s instruction, even having to play only the music selected by the teacher even if the student did not enjoy it, and any deviation from these requirements would result in expulsion from the teacher’s studio. One student told me a former teacher wanted her to burn a book which showed a different way to play a particular scale than his method. (It is really hard to believe some of these teachers are living in the 21st century!) These people have come to me for “musical healing,” and that is what they receive.
Other adults who come to me are accomplished pianists who play advanced repertoire with a high degree of skill. But they have a gnawing dissatisfaction with their playing. They tell me it feels too mechanical, they don’t feel they are really able to play from the heart, or the process of learning the music is not enjoyable. Many have learned technique which causes physical pain or fatigue in their hands and arms, or limits them from playing the way they want to play, or just plain doesn’t feel good.
I have been a pianist all my life, over half a century! I have been a performer, composer, and teacher for over 35 years. I began my studies with local piano teachers, and later went on to study at Manhattan School of Music, a 4-year conservatory in New York City. My teachers all taught in what I might call a traditional way, using philosophies and methods passed to them from their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers, over the past 300 years or so. I never thought to question these basic assumptions. At Manhattan School of Music I studied with a famous pianist. He was a lovely gentleman and kind soul. But he was a terrible teacher. He simply did not have a clue how to help others do many things that came naturally to him. He also had no idea how to help a student develop a way of playing that would be true and authentic for the student. He could only help you play in such a way that you ended up sounding like you were imitating him, the teacher. Though in my first few years I revered this teacher, later on I began to realize I wasn’t making the kind of progress I had hoped, and I had too many difficulties which never seemed to be really addressed. The light bulb went on for me, so to speak, when at a lesson I was playing a difficult piece, and he was sitting behind me (he never sat next to us at the piano, and so couldn’t really observe our hands, arms, and body to see what was going on physically), and, while I was stumbling through a section of the piece, I became aware he was saying something. I looked around, and he had his hands over his ears(!) and was pleading, “Please, don’t play so many wrong notes!” I would never have replied to him with sarcasm, but my urge was to say “You think????” I was incredulous. Wasn’t he supposed to be helping me to not play “so many wrong notes?”
After I graduated from Manhattan, I continued playing and also began teaching. I was troubled by the pain and fatigue I would have in my hands when I played difficult pieces. I was worried about developing tendonitis, which a few of my pianist friends were already experiencing. I heard about a teacher who helped pianists learn to play in a totally different way, and went to see him. His name was Joseph Prostakoff. I began studying with him the next week. It would not be an exaggeration to say he saved my life.
Right from the start, everything Mr. Prostakoff did turned everything I knew, or thought I knew, about playing the piano, upside down. He warned us, his students, that we would be required to question and be willing to let go of most of our assumptions. His approach to every aspect of playing, from technique, ear training, interpretation and expression, to how to practice, was nothing short of revolutionary. Future issues of this blog will go into all these areas in depth. I hope you will be here for that!
And so, my fellow pianists, if you are discouraged, I want you to know there can be another way for you. I hope you will visit my blog often. If you are one of those lucky ones who has managed to maintain the love and joy of playing the piano and make progress at the same time, and would just like to have new food for thought, please join me.